There are so many things I want to put down in my review, but I must restrain and allow you to experience it for yourself first-hand. While many have been quick to compare "Spirited Away" to "Alice and Wonderland," this movie is on its own shelf. There are references to other movies, in my opinion most of them come from other Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast."
Writer/director Hayao Miyazaki's animé fantasy epic is the first animated film in the 50-year history of the prestigious Venice Film Festival to win the top prize. In Japan, the movie earned $230 million, passing "Titanic" as the country's most lucrative film at the box office. It is the first film ever to make more than $200 million before opening in the United States.
But before I get into the details of the movie, let me reassure you that this isn't a typical Japanese animation project. It has been flawlessly dubbed into English (you can't get any more perfect) by John Lasseter, whose resume includes but isn't limited to--both "Toy Story" movies and "A Bugs Life." Supervising animator Kirk Wise ("Beauty and the Beast") also helped Disney import Japan's finest animated film to America's shores.
When the movie begins, we see a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro (voice by Daveigh Chase), riding in the backseat of the family car. The family is moving to a new home in an unfamiliar city, ready to begin a new life. Sitting quietly, Chihiro holds a picture from her recent childhood containing a message from her friends left behind. Right away we are introduced to the first theme. As the audience, we individually decide what that theme is. Change, a new beginning, abandonment? Whatever you associate the theme to be, it quickly becomes a stepping stone for many more themes to come.
While on the road, Chihiro's overconfident father veers off the main path and takes them through the woods where they spot a mysterious tunnel. Mom and Pop eagerly get out of the car to walk through the tunnel running under the ruins. On the other side, according to Chihiro's father, is an abandoned theme park.
The creepy park backdrop is credit to Miyazaki's talent. Refraining from computers and special effects, thousands of the frames were personally hand drawn. The only downside to the rich color and detailed cells is that our eyes will be too preoccupied on one part of the screen to notice something else that took just as long to draw. Miyazaki gives us so much to look at, and we want to see it all.
While exploring the derelict park grounds, the family is drawn by a fabulous odor to a food stall still apparently functioning. Hypnotized by the mouth-watering scent of the food, Chihiro's parents gorge themselves in the buffet. With a notion of suspicion, Chihiro refuses to eat and wanders off to explore the ghost town. She encounters a boy named Haku (Jason Marsden) who warns her that she and her family must leave before the sun goes down. But when she runs back to alert her mother and father, they've been transformed into pigs. Haku warns her that the only way she can save her parents is to listen to him and to follow his specific directions.
Haku is the first of many fascinating characters from the strange world we come across. He has special powers that allow him to levitate, fire magic, and shape-shift into a dragon. He becomes Chihiro's companion and leads him to the bathhouse where all of the characters work and live. Chihiro will have to become a resident, get a job, and learn the ways of the new civilization before she will get the chance to save her family and return back to the real world.
At this point, the audience is affixed on Chihiro. We forget for awhile that we're watching a cartoon, and we silently cheer for her as she embarks on her quest. The interiors of the bathhouse are amazing, detailed and all. The customers come in all shapes, sizes, spirits and creatures. The same goes for the employees. Our first look into the house is like a crossroads scene from a "Star Wars" movie. Every character we see is from a different species, except Chihiro, the only human.
The bathhouse is run by the huge-headed, tiny-bodied, Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) an elderly witch who is generally evil, yet she is goodhearted. She is the most powerful of the spell casters, and bestowed much of her skills in her apprentice, Haku, Chihiro's friend. Yubaba was once forced into signing a contract that stated she must grant anyone a job who applies for one. This is a good thing for Chihiro, because she will need to work in the new world for a substantial period of time before she will get a chance at saving her parents. She is assigned to work for the bathhouse attendant, Lin (Susan Egan).
Although the U.S. version was produced by Walt Disney Studios, "Spirited Away" hardly resembles a conventional Disney film. But what this movie does have that is often associated with Disney, is the comical aspect. There isn't any straight humor in the dialogue, but there is enough through the behaviors and actions by the characters to keep you laughing through a lot of the movie.
As for the characters, I have a hard time comparing this one to other movies that have characters just as witty and memorable. I've already mentioned Yubaba, Haku and Lin, now I'll get to some of the others. One of my favorites is the eight-limbed herbalist, Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers), an elderly spiderman who maintains the boiler room. Working for him are hundreds of black dust mites that look like spiders. They form an assembly line and are responsible for keeping the furnace full of coal.
Some characters are more meaningful. One in particular is No Face, a black shape-shifting ghost who wears a white mask to distinguish his face. He has no friends, but offers gold to all of the employees. They all greedily accept it, but will eventually face a certain consequence. But Chihiro is kind to the spirit, and lets him inside the house when she sees him standing alone outside. No Face becomes her companion, and will accompany her on her final voyage.
Other elements of "Spirits Away" that older audiences will appreciate are the hidden meanings . The plot is thick, and between every layer is a smaller story with its own theme. One of the customers is a river spirit who is nothing more than a glob of horribly reeking mud. Chihiro washes off the filth, and what's left is discarded trash that was once part of life. You can debate the validity of the other pieces of garbage as long as you like. There are also other parts of the story worth mentioning such as the necessity for remembering your name. While in the new world, Chihiro must not forget who she is, or she will never be able to return home.
Earlier I mentioned there are some creepy backgrounds and settings, but there are also some haunting images that rightfully earned this film a PG rating, rather than the standard G awarded to most cartoons. There is a scene where a bullet train is riding under water on a track that apparently leads to nowhere. Scenes like this are labeled by the MPAA as dramatic intensity, and it may frighten younger children.
In the end, it will be up to Chihiro to save her parents and return to the real world. "Spirited Away" is just over two hours in duration, but you'll hardly realize the time passing while you take part of a fantasy that unfortunately ends when the movie does.